Monday, May 5, 2014

A Reconciling Reverence

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Easter includes Acts; 2:14a, 36-41; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday, I urged you to join me in having your radar plugged in when reading the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s death and resurrection. We considered some causes for a distinct note of blame that keeps cropping up as Jews are accused of killing the Christ. Such a puzzling dynamic, since the disciples are Jews, our Lord is a Jewish itinerant preacher, and the Jesus movement through much of the first century is a spiritual phenomenon within Judaism.

Until, that is, a sharp parting of the ways some three or four decades after our Lord’s death, a painful separation of the child (Christianity) from the parent (Judaism), a struggle we see and hear at work here and there in the New Testament.

Why make an issue of this? Because the holy scriptures are entrusted to the Church as the very Word of God that the world most needs to hear. It is for each generation to present that Word as the radiantly good news that it is, shaping that presentation by attitudes worthy of the task and worthy of the good news and worthy of the God who speaks it. Eternally repeating those occasional dyspeptic phrases and verses that evidently appear to blame the Jews for the crucifixion does not advance the Kingdom of God.

That statement does not make me a radical activist. I did not even realize that last Sunday was Yom Hoshoa, the day when Jews remember the engulfing darkness of the Holocaust and the undefeated bright flame of their faith. As I asked you to join me in wrestling with those doors of the upper room being locked by the disciples “for fear of the Jews,” I simply responded to the text assigned for the day. And then later felt first foolish for missing the day… and then amazed that we had not missed it.

So today, when we hear the apostle Peter upbraid “the entire house of Israel” for crucifying Jesus, we choose to affirm that we are part of that entire house of Israel, not over-against it. When we hear the disciples en route to Emmaus assign responsibility to their chief priests and leaders for condemning Jesus to death, we can say, “Isn’t that the way with the institutional Church, when it loses sight of its purpose?

I believe the path of faithfulness requires us to patiently delve deeper into the still-being-fathomed rich mine of the Bible, right into the motherlode of the redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ, bring up the ore, and set aside the clay. Not throw it away: set it aside for what God the master potter will make of it—but not at the expense of raising up the precious ore.

Imbedded in that ore is the gold of the good news that fashions a whole new value, a new attitude distinctly different from what is hard-wired in the deep mine of our brain stem. By nature, we define who we are over-against others. We’re used to needing others against whom to compare ourselves, distinguish ourselves, unite ourselves in common cause… against. This dynamic is so basic, so successful, and so divisive.

And omnipresent in the news of the week. Donald Sterling’s racist rantings. Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of nationalism. The long half-life of hatreds in Ireland. The tyranny of terrorists kidnapping Nigerian schoolgirls.

By sharp contrast, the new Gospel value, the attitude that will help the world behold Jesus Christ in all his redeeming work, is named in our second reading today from the First Letter of Peter.

There we are told that God is impartial to the many human distinctions inherited genetically or culturally. Neither do silver and gold wield any influence with God. What matters is that we live in what Peter calls “reverent fear”. This will be the third consecutive Sunday, this Easter, that we will have heard the scriptures singing, “What the world needs now is reverence, sweet reverence.”

And on Easter Day we also heard reverence linked with fear, not to recommend fear the attitude God wants in us, but to acknowledge fear as a natural piece of our hard wiring. The good news of God in Jesus Christ directly addresses our fears: from the annunciation to Mary, to the birth in Bethlehem, and to the empty tomb, angels keep popping up to coach all the principal players (including us), not to be afraid. As much as to say, when faced with such enormity as birth, death, resurrection—and all the big stuff that intervenes, losing a job, facing an illness, being a caregiver, moving across the country, retiring—fear is at least second nature, often first.

But as I’ve said three Sundays in a row now (and I hope you aren’t yet finding it stale), in the resurrection of Jesus God commingles our fear and our joy, and what comes of this deep blend is reverence, an attitude that the transcendent creator God is the power and the glory that will bring on earth as in heaven God’s reign of justice and peace; and that established in each of us by the pure gift of Jesus is an embassy of that power, a border crossing between God’s dwelling on high and the divine presence dwelling within us. And by that inner life of the Spirit we learn to recognize movements of God, actions of grace, and callings to serve.

These recognitions require both solitude and community. It is by practices of prayer, of silence, of reflection, of study, of honest self-appraisal, repentance, and amendment of life that we open ourselves to recognize not what separates us from others but the common ground on which we stand with others, build with others, cross boundaries that need crossing.

And so it is no accident, but much part of the strategy of God that we should find one another in the fellowship and teamwork and loving relationships of congregations, Bible study and support groups, coffee conversations, interfaith exploration, ecumenical sharing, diocesan ministries, and worldwide communion. All require, and at their best teach as a core value, defining who we are not over-against others, but in full, open, mindful communion with others.

Consider Luke’s story of the unrecognizing disciples on the road to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’s disciples—not among the original twelve, but two fellows from the seventy followers Luke mentions elsewhere—they’re walking an open road all wrapped up in fear and loss and grief. Jesus himself approaches them and walks with them.

We don’t know if and how they welcome his company. Perhaps they’ve gone silent: is Jesus trying to draw out of them what they’re discussing, to get them talking again, this time including him? The moment sounds like it’s straight from a therapy session, when the patient is about to go deeper: “They stood still, looking sad.”

Cleopas breaks the silence. Notice how that is a Greek name. He may have been a convert to Judaism, but with a name like Cleopas he wasn’t a cradle member of the house of Israel, and it’s not unlikely that he knew what it meant to be viewed as an outsider, a stranger.

“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know what has taken place there recently?” Defined over-against others, Cleopas sees only the stranger in this sudden companion who we know is Jesus.

What does it mean that neither disciple recognizes Jesus? Luke wants us to locate the answer in them: “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” They were so wrapped up in Jesus’s burial shroud that they had him dead and gone—just like their hopes that he might be the one to redeem Israel.

“Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

Even then—even while he’s patiently giving them a tutorial survey of how the Hebrew Bible speaks to who he is and what he has done—still all they can see in him is an otherness. Not seeing their common ground, their imagination is not triggered and they retreat into themselves, writing him off as not being in the same world, not dealing with the same realities.

And could we blame him for walking ahead as if he were going on? “Sheesh… these disciples… what will it take to reach them?”

And at that moment they provide the first thing it will take: they pray him to stay with them that night, they urge him to remain with them. That’s what he had asked of them, his disciples, just three nights before, in Gethsemane: “Stay with me, remain here with me; watch, and pray…”

Their wanting him is the first step towards breakthrough. His familiar action at the table, over bread and wine, is the second. No longer do they see in him an otherness over-against them. They recognize him. And he vanishes from their sight.

The Gospels present several post-Easter appearances of Jesus to various disciples. By intimate engagement, Jesus ignites faith each time he appears, yet all these encounters convey the message he gives first at the tomb to Mary Magdalene: “Don’t try to hold onto me.”

It’s as if awakening their power to recognize him is the Master’s final gift to his disciples. What he doesn’t have to say to them is “Don’t dismiss me in otherness: for I am with you, to the end of time.” They know it.

But you and I do need to hear that message, to renew our inner life of the Spirit, and our outward life in community, for by both we learn to recognize movements of God, actions of grace, and callings to serve.

And, as the two disciples learned, Jesus himself understands his redeeming work as rising from and continuous with the Hebrew Bible, the law and the prophets, the entire house of Israel. He embodies such common ground with Judaism, and calls us to practice a reconciling love.